Luxurious automobiles are usually precluded from spaces marked ‘compact only.’ By nature of their luxury, they are an imposing presence, personified by sleek lines, wide openings, hushed, purring engines and cavernous cabins, marked with the most exquisite leather and wood the earth can provide. Technology is also a key element of the luxury automobile. Every function is automated, or motorized, or completed with minimal occupant effort.
Luxury cars are, save for hardcore sports cars, the epitome of what money can buy in the motoring world – which is why they are almost always a symbol of wealth, excess, and power – not for the humble or slight of wallet. Cars sold to the masses tend to be simple, unrefined, even drab (reference: Toyota Camry). Driving a practical car is not known to stir the inspired mind or relax the senses.
Recently though, several auto marques known for efficiency and affordability have twisted that stereotype by collaborating with brands traditionally seated at the opposite end of the spectrum. Their efforts highlight a niche market for more richly optioned small cars, as more people see oversized and underutilized luxury models as wasteful and unnecessary.
Mini chose BMW-group sibling Rolls-Royce to help develop the Mini Goodwood, a premium version of the Cooper S hardtop model. The outside and technical parts are mostly stock Mini, but the interior is where the Rolls-Royce influence is showcased. Leather is sourced from the cows RR uses, wood is layered and polished by hand. Thick-pile carpets are used in lieu of standard rubber mats, and the fonts on tach and speed gauges have been modified to match those in the Phantom and Ghost. It’s a rolling jewelry case, where you can transport your finest small items.
All that luxury isn’t cheap, though, so the treatment bumps the price on a Cooper S to about $52,000, a nearly 100% premium. For that you get all the typical tech of a Cooper S (efficient engine, safety, navigation, xenon headlights), plus a plush interior you may never want to stop sniffing.
Fiat chose a similar route, tapping Gucci to design a tarted up version of its 500 minicar, recently introduced to the North American market. It is more blatantly Gucci-fied, though, showing off the brand’s signature red and green stripe trim on either a white or black base color. The Gucci logo is debossed on the front headrests, and seat inserts feature Gucci’s guccissima monogrammed leather in a contrasting color. It is not nearly as serious as the Mini-Rolls pairing, but then it wouldn’t be a flashy and frivolous, top-down ItalianÂ experience.
At least in concept, it’s reminiscent of the auto-fashion collaborations seen throughout the past: Cadillac Seville Gucci, Lincoln Town Car Cartier, and Lexus LS400 Coach. Those were loosely-tied associations applied with the utmost sincerity. The difference this time is it’s not applied to a stately grandpa car. The modern approach is more convincing because it’s aimed at customers who want it for its novelty, not for its status symbolism. It’s less status-priced too, at only $24,000.
Aston Martin took the hybrid approach of both the Mini and Fiat. Known for speed and power, the British brand transformed a Toyota iQ two-seater minicar into the Cygnet, a chic urban pod of luxury. Rather than modifying any of the powertrain, Aston Martin focused on the aesthetics, allowing customers to choose from an array of exterior colors and interior trims. The result is a Â£30,000 (~$47,000) baby Aston that for a quarter of the money, is probably like driving a quarter of the Aston. For those with the means, a true Aston may be impractical for city dwelling – hence the market for the Cygnet.
For now, it is only sold in the UK, but with introductions coming to other markets soon. It’s dowdier cousin, the Scion iQ, is now on sale in the US, if you wanted a taste of its size and driving feel.
To what trends do these examples point? For one, those buying small cars are not necessarily tasteless, or interested in driving boring small cars. However, the market for $50,000 minicars is appreciably narrow, and may remain so until the global recession has run its course.
At their core, although the trend may evolve over time, the driving public is becoming more interested in small cars generally, thanks to fluctuating gas prices and an emphasis on alternatives to costly congestion and long commutes in gas guzzlers. Big cars are no longer on the yuppie’s wishlist, as other pursuits have taken center stage, like personal technology and recreation.
On the supply side, thanks to stricter efficiency standards for auto producers, all brands are building cars with more efficient engines (see BMW 3-series review). Mini as a brand has grown steadily more popular, because it now has a lineup of six models that each produce admirable mileage but can be optioned with performance and style in mind.
It will be exciting to observe how the premium small car market evolves over time, as other markets for serious luxury barges and massive SUVs (see the new Range Rover) have only slightly slowed in relation. While the United States and Europe may be embracing stylish, small fuel-sippers, emerging markets like the Middle East, Russia, China, and India are hungry for status-laden symbols in the form of brash luxury and performance models from the best of the European and American brands.